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NYC Students Learn Hands-on Science — Literally

A group of high school students from New York City spent a week at ESF this summer, immersing themselves in hands-on science as they learned about environmental engineering, fisheries science, ecology, dendrology and GIS mapping.

In some cases, the "hands-on" aspect of the program was more literal than the students had expected.

"I never expected to touch organisms from a stream. That was a big thing for me. At first I was a little nervous because you're holding a little life in your hands. And you don't want to hurt them or anything," said Maria Shahzadi of Brooklyn. "But after a while I got used to it."

Shahzadi said her week at ESF changed her career focus. She's now thinking about working in the field of environmental engineering.

"I want to help speed up the process of cleaning the lakes," she said.

Shahzadi was one of a group of 19 high school students who came to ESF through the New York City-based non-profit organization Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars. The college partnered with SEO in an effort to interest more under-represented students in environmental science and related fields. Their visit was sponsored by TD Charitable Foundation, Cuse Car of Syracuse, Solvay Bank, Vita DeMarchi and William B. Kuhl.

During their stay at ESF Aug. 9 to 14, the students built miniature solar-powered cars and raced them on campus, learned about insects and stream flow at Elmwood Park, took in ecology lessons at Green Lakes State Park and assisted with a survey of fish species in Onondaga Lake.

The outdoor experiences were a highlight for Yacine Fall of Manhattan.

"I'm going to tell people that, honestly, they should go out and explore nature. You think, 'Nature is so boring, it's not for me. I'm a city person.' That's what I thought, too, but when you're really here and you're hands-on in nature, you're just like, 'Wow, this is a whole different experience!' It really took me out of my comfort zone," she said. "I feel like everybody in the city should try it."

Fall and her SEO classmates worked with the ESF SCIENCE (Summer Camps Investigating Ecology in Neighborhood and City Environments) program, which offers a series of weeklong camps through the summer. They stayed in ESF's Centennial Hall. Brandon Murphy, ESF's training program coordinator, said this was the first time the college held a full overnight camp.

SEO Scholars is a free eight-year academic program that supports low-income public school students through their high school and college years. The program has a 95 percent college graduation rate. ESF Trustee Leslie Talbot, who has been involved with the SEO Scholars, helped foster the relationship between the college and program.

According to Murphy, SEO has offered outdoor experience programs before, but this is the first time the organization has offered its participants an academic program focused on environmental science.

Emil Kim, senior program manager for SEO, said the students' trip to ESF is part of SEO's effort to expose the students to a range of academic and career possibilities. ESF, he said, is a trusted partner with a reputation as a leader in the field of environmental education.

"Many of our students are the children of immigrants, some are from single-family or low-income homes. They will be first-generation college students," he said. "One thing they lack is that exposure to environmental science and nature."

The campers will begin their junior year in the fall.

The trip had Julio Tlachi of Queens looking toward the future. The week at ESF solidified his interest in a career in science.

"I'm going to be growing up in this world and this is the only thing we have so we might as well make the best of it," he said.

Karla Carino of the Bronx said that before the trip, she didn't know there was a college focused on the study of the environment. "I'm more passionate about the environment and the way we can preserve it," she said. "I will tell everybody, 'Hey, you should come to ESF.'"